Friday, March 27, 2009

Duplicity (2009)

I would never have guessed that behind the bland ads and a blander poster, that Duplicity could actually be very good. I’m so happy that it’s more than very good: this is a smart, stylish, and witty movie that is a total frothy delight from beginning to end, the best froth I’ve seen in a while and the most satisfyingly twist-filled plot since, well, writer-director Tony Gilroy’s last movie (one of my favorites of 2007), Michael Clayton.

Duplicity is like that film in a major key, lighter, bouncier, sunnier, a comedy thriller about corporate espionage without a gun fight or car chase in sight. It’s an endlessly entertaining heist film (yes, that tired genre) as it continually backs up to fill us in on the con while moving forward to reveal how the con is more complicated than we think. The filmmakers delight in revealing their secrets to us, and I took delight in it as well, as the frame literally breaks apart and slides into the past then slowly shrinks back into the future to send us into even more twists. These are the kind of genuinely surprising twists that make me alternately gasp and chuckle, not the kind that appear simply because the gears of the plot require it of them.

The dialogue spits and flips out of the actor’s mouths so effortlessly, so wittily, I’ll bet it could often work just as well as a radio play. But that would rob the film of its beautiful imagery, its fun split-screen moments, and the great visages of its stars. Julia Roberts’s face is harsher now than it once was but she’s settling into a more mature look, still a star up there, comfortable in her own skin, larger than life, and she’s having a blast. So is Clive Owen, pitch-perfect as always, but its startling after so many years of grim and grimmer stories to see him crack a smile. He’s having fun too. These are capital-S stars, the kind that help guide a smart, stylish movie to an even better place by their sheer luminosity. They play ex-spies, ex-maybe lovers, and maybe also examining the start of a beautiful friendship. They’re running a con game, and that’s all I should say. Are they running one con in tandem or two at once? Are they conning each other or just corporate America? What’s the difference between a hand cream and a lotion? Why does the last question matter (as it so obviously does)? I won’t say. There's too much fun to be had finding out.

And then there’s a great supporting cast, the best of which is Paul Giamatti. Boy, it’s good to see him again, and in such a fun and funny role, twisting his face up in all-too-recognizable displays of corporate arrogance. Tom Wilkinson’s here too, in a mostly one-note role as an also recognizable corporate type: the self-satisfied windbag, although he gets a great monologue about ancient fire and also gets to explain one of the movie’s best twists. Together the two great men square off over the opening credits in an extremely slow-mo corporate fisticuffs that brings the house down.

What a pure entertainment; it’s sleek and shiny, a beautiful pristine bliss machine. I loved every minute of it as it sizzles with a love of storytelling. And why shouldn’t it, when Gilroy has such a fun, satisfying story to tell. This is a classy and classical film that, with a few changes, – they’d have to be secretly married, their relations would be more implied, the tech much lower – could pass for a film of the forties or fifties, it’s so cleanly charming with effortless expert craftsmanship (who’d play the leads? I’m thinking Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell).

A film that could have stepped wrong so often didn’t and by the end, when I realized Gilroy pulled it off, I was pleasantly surprised, no, pleasantly overjoyed. This is an effortlessly delightful movie, the best excuse for an ear-to-ear grin in these troubled times of pre-summer multiplex famine and economic drought. This is a roof-raising crowd-pleaser in the best sense. The kind of movie with generous humor and a complicated but comprehensible script that flies forward trusting the audience to keep pace. As Gilroy holds the last shot longer than expected (not unlike in Clayton) he allows the plot to settle in along with the full satisfaction of having seen a movie.

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